"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Depicting Russian Orthodoxy in the Middle Ages

I yield nothing to anybody in my disdain for Putin and his war against Ukraine, but the current trend of refusing to play Russian music at your local symphony, or avoiding Russian literature or whatever is just silly and aids nobody. Perhaps those inclined to such ostentatious pseudo-sympathy might be less anxious about earlier works of Russian culture, including those discussed in a book by Agnes Kriza coming out late next month: Depicting Orthodoxy in the Russian Middle Ages: The Novgorod Icon of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (Oxford UP, 2022), 384pp. + 105 colour plates.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The image of Divine Wisdom, traditionally associated with the Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, is an innovation of the fifteenth century. The icon represents the winged, royal, red-faced Sophia flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Although the image has a contemporaneous commentary, and although it exercised a profound influence on Russian cultural history, its meaning, together with the dating and localisation of the first appearance of the iconography, has remained an art-historical conundrum. By exploring the message, roots, function, and historical context of the creation of the first, most emblematic and enigmatic Russian allegorical iconography, Depicting Orthodoxy in the Russian Middle Ages deciphers the meaning of this icon. 

In contrast to previous interpretations, Kriza argues that the winged Sophia is the personification of the Orthodox Church. The Novgorod Wisdom icon represents the Church of Hagia Sophia, that is, Orthodoxy, as it was perceived in fifteenth-century Rus. Depicting Orthodoxy asserts that the icon, together with its commentary, was a visual-textual response to the Union of Florence between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, signed in 1439 but rejected by the Russians in 1441. This interpretation is based on detailed interdisciplinary research, drawing on philology, art history, theology, and history. Kriza's study challenges some key assumptions concerning the relevance of Church Schism of 1054, the polemics between the Greeks and the Latins about the bread of Eucharist, and the role of the Union of Florence in the history of Russian art. In particular, by studying both well- and lesser-known works of art alongside overlooked textual evidence, this volume investigates how the Christian Church and its true faith were defined and visualized in Rus and Byzantium throughout the centuries.

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